Marking changes in the oilpatch
Journalist Chris Turner paints a nuanced portrait of the world’s most infamous fossil fuel reserves
For many, the promise of work in the Alberta oilsands held incontestable appeal. Even in Manhattan, in 2010, as I was finishing a graduate degree in literature, the dream of big money for hard labour drove me to apply for jobs in Fort McMurray.
Conscious of escalating climate change — presently manifest, it seems, in storms battering the southern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean — my hope for a place in the industry was checked, at first, by guilt. But money is a vicious motivator. With few better prospects, a mercenary year in the cold of the Patch began to seem romantic: leaving my books, I’d drop in, make fistfuls of cash and move on.
It was a common enough pattern. From 2001to 2006 — the wild years of the boom — nearly half a million Canadians moved to Alberta from other provinces. Careers bloomed in logistics, mechanical repair — even investigative journalism, as evidenced by Calgary-based author Chris Turner, who established himself as one of the nation’s foremost writers on the energy industry. In his latest book, The Patch, Turner uses years of on-site observation and interviews with those at every level of the operation, as well as its critics, to reveal a nuanced portrait of what has become among the world’s most infamous fossil fuel reserves.
When one learns how little the region contributes to worldwide oil production (a mere 3 per cent), and the progress engineers have made to reduce its carbon emissions, how the Patch became a focal point for global environmental outrage — most recently reflected in protests to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — becomes one of the more fascinating, complicated questions Turner answers.
By providing context through regional history, Albertan politics, and the technological breakthroughs that made the socalled “liberation” of oil from bitumen a profitable endeavour, The Patch breaks from the scrum of industry boosters and celebrity-flashing environmentalists to provide an accessible, balanced perspective on what Turner describes as “one of the most colossally scaled engineering projects in human history.”
Is there an alternative to the midcentury “church of High-Modernism” that realized that project — and led to present fears? Turner believes so. There exists a “competing definition of progress,” he writes, which envisions a future without dependence on fossil fuels. Yet one senses deep skepticism about Turner’s faith in humanity to overcome the paradigm of “technological progress and engineering prowess” that presses unsustainable development onward.
As gas spikes ripple across Ontario and floodwaters recede in Bangladesh, The Patch reminds us that there are no clear enemies — only a system in which we’re all, to some degree, complicit. As for my grasp at oil money? It never came about. By 2010, Fort McMurray was well into the “$50-(per barrel) doldrums,” where it stagnates today; jobs are harder to come by. Now seemingly past its years of “perpetual growth . . . and agitation,” it’s difficult to know the course of Alberta’s future. For Turner, though, one thing is clear: change is coming. Grant Munroe’s writing has appeared in the Walrus, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.